Thursday, August 4, 2016

I Need to Eat More Bananas for My Squash

Just as with other aspects of our life, our goal when it comes to gardening is to have a self-reliant garden. While, at times, I wish that meant that the garden did everything for itself, what it actually means is that I want it to be self-sustaining with no trips needed to the garden center for seeds, plants, fertilizer, etc. This includes no online orders of supplies as well. In other words, the goal is for everything going into the gardens to come from our property. I am willing to make a few exceptions for items I can stock up on that I find beneficial in the garden that I can not make at home - like Dawn dish soap and Tums Antacid tablets. (How's that for a teaser?)

Worm Juice - Plant Food and Supplement
I have been contemplating how to cover the various topics in the blog. Some of the products are used on everything growing in the garden while others are for specific problems or specific vegetables. Let's start with the all-encompassing plant food that all my plants get from the time they are seedlings - worm juice.

Collecting worm juice as it drains
from the bottom of the worm farm.
I started my worm farm a couple years ago by ordering my Red Wiggler (Eisenia Foetida) composting worms from Uncle Jim's Worm Farm. These worms have been quite prolific and they now provide me with a two liter bottle of worm juice every 10-14 days. This slows down in the winter, but I save it up in the fall and winter so that I can fortify my beds in early spring and feed all my young plants.

In technical terms, worm juice is the leachate that comes from vermicompost. In everyday vernacular, it is pee from the worms that eat our kitchen compost. Our worms, which number in the thousands, reside in a large 100 gallon RubberMaid tub behind our shed. The tub sits at a slight angle on concrete blocks with a drain hole at the lower end.  There is a layer of rocks in the bottom of the tub, followed by a layer of landscape fabric and then dirt. The landscape fabric keeps the dirt from plugging the drain hole and also keeps the worms from going through the drain. For the drain we used one of those gadgets that is a short plastic tube that you can screw a two-liter bottle to both ends to in order to make a 'water tornado' experiment. In our case, we screw a bottle to the end that sticks out the bottom of the tub to catch the worm juice.
I added the red lines on this photo to show where the top
of the cow peas were on each side of the raised bed. I had
added worm juice to the left side every 2 to 3 weeks.

The worm juice is too concentrated to use directly on the plants. For seedlings and young plants I dilute it 1 part worm juice to about 12 parts water. As the garden matures and I add follow-up feedings I make the dilution a little stronger about 1 part worm juice to between 8-10 parts water. I have run several experiments to see if there is a difference when I use worm juice. My seeds have sprouted quicker and seedlings have been less spindly or 'leggy'. I also had a raised bed of cow peas this year that I only fed one side with worm juice and gave the other side a placebo (plain water) and the worm juice side did show faster growth.

Usually, when people refer to fertilizer. they are referring to what is known as an NPK fertilizer. The N stands for Nitrogen which is primarily responsible for the growth of the plant. P is for Phosphorus which is important for root development and seed production, and K is for Potassium. Potassium is sort of like an invisible armor, it actually doesn't make up any part of the plant but gives the plant the ability to withstand extreme temperatures, drought and pests.

Bags of this type of fertilizer have three numbers on them, for example 10-5-10. The numbers represent the percentage of each of these nutrients by weight. Worm juice is not considered an NPK fertilizer due to its nutrient make up, and the fact that the percentages can vary depending on your worms' diet. Since the nutrients in worm juice will vary based on the worms' diet, there are no specific NPK numbers to go by. A household that eats lots of bananas and thus has a higher than average number of banana peels in their compost will then have a higher 'K' rating than the average worm juice. Here are some numbers I found on what is 'typical' for worm juice, some of the numbers are consider high for fertilizer use, thus the reason to dilute worm juice and also to use it every few weeks:
  • Nitrogen – 1120 ppm: This is about twice that of typical liquid fertilizer. 
  • Phosphorus – 22 ppm: This is much less than a typical garden fertilizer. 
  • Potassium – 5034 ppm: This is much higher than most liquid fertilizers.
Blossom end rot
Other Soil Supplements
As the gardens were growing, I added a couple of my standard supplements. I save all my egg shells throughout the winter. I crush them and sprinkle them around both my tomato and pepper plants to help stop blossom end rot. Blossom end rot is when the produce, particularly tomatoes and peppers,  rots on the bottom (the end where the blossom was) and is caused by a calcium deficiency. This year I noticed my Amish Paste tomatoes were still experiencing the occasional blossom end rot even with their egg shells, so I increased their calcium supply by pushing a few Tums Antacids into each container. After that, there were only a couple more occurrences of this garden malady.

Besides this calcium deficiency, I discovered my pumpkins and squash needed more phosphorous (the P in the NPK) then they were getting from the worm juice. I grow a lot of pumpkins and winter squash and I had noticed some of their leaves were dying off and the squash leaves were also turning yellow. At first I thought this was due to squash bugs as I had seen several of them on various plants. But then I realized that the number of bugs I had seen could not do the amount of damage I was seeing. So I started googling and learned that pumpkins and winter squash require a high amount of phosphorous (the P in NPK). I immediately gave them an extra dose of worm juice, but I also went out and got a supply of bone meal as this is an excellent source of phosphorous for the garden. I will be stocking up on this and working it into the soil in the tire planters that I use for squash/pumpkins each fall. Both rock and bone based phosphorous additives break down very slowly. This is good in that they are long lasting in the garden, but it is also bad in that you can not get a quick fix, that is why I plan to add more phosphorus this fall and let it 'work' all winter. Although I must say, the bone meal I did add to my plants did make a visible difference in just a few days.

One of my tomato containers with onions
and egg shells. We'll talk about the 2-liter
bottle in a little bit.
Pest Control
And now it's time to discuss the arsenal. Last year I discovered a stealth weapon for my tomato plants. I planted three onion sets with each of my tomatoes as an experiment in hopes of warding off the little white aphids that usually appear on my tomato plants. I have not studied or practiced companion planting, but my thought was that the onion smell may deter the aphids. It seemed to work, as there were very few aphids on my tomato plants last year. But, as one year could just be a fluke, I still considered this year to be an experiment as well and again there were no aphids on the tomatoes.

My 'go-to' weapon of choice for pest control in the garden has been diatomaceous earth (DE). This is a white, chalky powder made from fossil remains of diatoms, which are tiny aquatic organisms. If you were to look at diatomaceous earth under a microscope you would see microscopic sharp edges which are deadly to soft bodied insects. Dusting plants and the ground around plants with DE is like laying land minds for the pests crawling on your plants, as they crawl across the DE their bodies are cut by the sharp edges. You do need to take care that you do not use DE around blossoms when plants are pollinating. You do not want to harm or kill the pollinators that come to your garden.

Unfortunately, not all garden pests are susceptible to diatomaceous earth. Anything with hard shelled bodies, like Japanese beetles and squash bugs, are immune to its affects. When I started to see squash bugs on my pumpkin plants this year, along with their eggs on the under sides of a few leaves and some nymphs (baby bugs) I once again turned to Google. Almost every article I read said that a solution of Dawn dish soap and water would kill squash bugs. I was skeptical because when you look for garden remedies on the internet you always find Dawn dish soap being touted as the best remedy for almost everything. But, I decided to give it a try. I put about an inch of Dawn in a spray bottle and then filled it with water. I went down to the bottom garden and found the leaves that had the eggs and nymphs and sprayed them. I then found a couple full grown squash bugs and sprayed them a couple times. Each one started stumbling around and fell off the vine within 30 seconds of being sprayed. One even landed on its back, feet sticking straight up in the air - the Dawn solution actually worked!

Mr. & Mrs. Squash Bug out on a date
However, the next day I realized I had made the solution too strong when I returned to the garden to discover the leaves I had sprayed had large brown spots. So, I diluted my solution, turned to nozzle from wide angle spray to a narrow stream and began blasting squash bugs off the pumpkin and squash vines. Most of these pests were out on 'dates' so it was a two-for-one deal as I sent them flying in a stream of soapy water. I must admit I think I got a little too much pleasure taking aim and providing a cold shower to these romantic couples. It is surprising how angry some little bugs can make you when you know they have the ability to ruin a bunch of food you have work all spring and summer to grow.

I have also had an influx of Japanese beetles this year. So far, I have not found a solution to eradicate them. Even the stronger Dawn solution did not affect them. My only defense to date has been to pull them off the plants and toss them into the woods. I know they will eventually make their way back, I am thinking I should put my Dawn solution in a bucket and toss them into that. I do believe the Japanese beetles have been misnamed, however. Ninety percent of the time I find them munching on the grape leaves, so I am thinking they are actually Greek beetles.

Each pepper and tomato plant got a
2-liter bottle of water in their container.
After micro-managing all these garden issues on a daily basis, I had to leave it to survive on its own for a week. We just got back from a week in Kentucky helping one of our daughters at an annual sales event and I was worried about the state of the gardens on our return. I wasn't too worried about the raised bed, but the individual containers dry out much more quickly. The day before we left I put together an ad hoc watering system which consisted of two-liter bottles of water shoved upside down in each container. I tested a few for 24 hours prior to make sure they were draining but not too quickly and they seemed to be working. When we came back a week later all the plants (tomatoes and peppers) were well watered and the bottles were empty. We also had some rain the night before we returned so everything else in the gardens was well watered as well.

We have now been back two days and we have notice there is critter activity in the gardens at night. All the gardens are enclosed in cattle feed lot panels and also have a substance called 'Repels-All' sprinkled around the perimeter which in past years has always kept critters at bay all season. When we returned from Kentucky we could tell that animals had been in the garden eating some tomatoes as well as almost all of our grapes. And this morning I found three more half eaten tomatoes on the ground. I mentioned this to Alan and his thoughts are that with us being gone for a week, the critters became braver and started foraging in the garden. It has been raining since we got home and I have not been spending much time in the gardens. Hopefully, as I get back into the gardens more, the animals will relinquish their squatter's rights. But I am not holding my breath- I may be pulling out another arsenal.